The 14-step visa program has existed since 2009, and thousands of Afghans and their families have already relocated to the U.S (Photo: AFP)

For Afghans fleeing Taliban, being on right list is crucial

The numerous lists, compiled by everyone from veterans groups and human-rights organizations to the State Department and Pentagon include scores of American citizens, green-card holders and thousands of at-risk Afghans who didn’t make it out of Kabul by late August, when the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan.

U.S. officials are wrestling with a grim reality that they won’t be able to save everyone pleading for assistance.

“It is an awful, awful experience to have to look at choosing who to help,” said a senior State Department official who has worked in Afghanistan. “And, for the United States of America, which is used to playing an outsized role in Afghanistan, we are having to try and help people while grappling with a severe reduction in our ability to influence events on the ground.”

The lists, some of which contain thousands of names, are being used in a variety of evacuation efforts. Some are being used to put people on a small but growing number of charter flights organized by private aid groups. Others are being used to try to identify families who can be driven to neighboring countries such as Pakistan, according to people working on escape plans.

“It will just break your heart,” said an aid-group worker who is helping to compile the lists. “You see the names and understand the tremendous human suffering and tremendous vulnerability of people who are so deserving to get out.”

One challenge is that there is no centralized U.S. list and no uniform process for deciding who is in need. U.S. officials are trying to ensure that there are no security concerns with people on the lists, but the vetting process is opaque.

The same names might be on many lists as people try every way they can to get out of Afghanistan. Some groups are trying to coordinate their lists, but not everyone is willing to share confidential information with other organizations. Some groups have been reluctant to share their lists with the U.S. government because of concern that the names could end up in the hands of the Taliban, which might use the information to detain Afghans.

The State Department said that it was working to improve coordination between government agencies and private groups assisting in evacuation and that it had increased resources to vet those seeking entry into the U.S.

One of the original lists appears to have come from the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, which compiled a list of scores of high-profile Afghan women it wanted to get out of the country before the U.S. left, according to people involved in the efforts. Some got out on planes before Aug. 31. Others didn’t.

One person at a global rights organization who has worked in Afghanistan said she has spent countless hours creating lists in spreadsheets and compared the evacuation efforts to “Schindler’s List,” the Steven Spielberg movie about the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jews during World War II.

“People are just trying to make it to tomorrow,” she said. “What options do they have? They are going to be killed.”

As time passes, Afghans said there is an increasing sense of urgency as the risks for those hiding in Afghanistan grow. Many Afghans said they have been holed up for weeks in strained safe houses across the country, hiding from the Taliban.

One Afghan military interpreter who has been placed on several lists has been waiting every day for one of the options to pan out so he and his family can get out.

“We are all hoping to get good news every day,” he said.

Some of the groups, such as Allied Airlift 21, which had been in regular contact with people in Afghanistan, suddenly ceased communications, fearing that the appearance of their contact information on an Afghan mobile phone could threaten their lives if searched by the Taliban.

“We were unable to continue to provide up-to-date information or advice to our families, and more importantly, we quickly realized that in the deteriorating security situation, our communications could put them in grave danger,” said Kristina Baum, Allied Airlift 21 spokeswoman in an email.

Nevertheless, many Afghans are taking the risk, texting the American numbers and hoping to get on a list, she said.

Some of those trying to get out said they had been beaten and threatened by the Taliban. Afghan families are now facing the prospect that some of them might be able to go, while others—husbands, wives, children, parents—will be left behind.

Some Americans trying to get out have decided to stay because they won’t leave without relatives who don’t have passports or visas that would allow them to leave, according to U.S. officials and private groups working on the rescue efforts.

Military veterans groups began making lengthy lists in early August, when the Taliban swept through the country and the Biden administration signaled it would pull U.S. forces from the country no later than Sept. 11.

The number of people on those lists exploded into the tens of thousands, and veterans groups began their own processes of vetting. For weeks, that entailed confirming someone’s identity through some sort of official document, such as an Afghan national identity card or passport, which was sufficient for the groups to get people on flights out of the country.

Then U.S. troops left at the end of August, Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul closed to commercial flights, and the airlift ground to a halt.

Since then, the Pentagon and the State Department have been trying to determine who actually got out—and how many still want to leave Afghanistan.

The U.S. and its allies flew out more than 123,000 people before they withdrew, and the Biden administration pledged to help those left behind. The Taliban have refused to allow most Afghans to leave unless they have a passport and visa. That has proven to be a high hurdle for many.

In recent days, the Taliban have allowed more charter flights to leave, including a plane with about 400 people that flew out of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. People working on evacuation efforts there said 8,000 were hoping to get on flights. The process keeps being stalled by disagreements over who is allowed to leave the country, creating increased desperation.

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